Story and Photos by James Ramos
I really couldn’t feel my legs anymore.
My knees lean against the concrete bench that won’t move in front of my group, almost like a church pew kneeler. The crowd behind me presses against my back and 10 a.m., the supposed time of Pope Francis’ arrival to Philadelphia’s Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, ticks closer and closer.
Emotions and discomfort runs high. To my left, a claustrophobic lady asks for room to breathe. To my right, an even older lady tries to sit on the bench. There isn’t much room, but I tell her to take all the space you need.
My group that surrounds me — a team of social media journalists — doesn’t talk much. Our photographers grapple with a metal fence that corrals us, my other teammates behind me work the crowd handing out Pope Francis #PopeEmoji fans. I look down, triple-checking my own test shots then a roar of noise erupts down the street.
When my heart exploded
“He’s here! He’s here!” I hear a girl scream. Cassie is shaking. The entire crowd around me vibrates with the most energy I’ve ever felt in my life.
I lift my camera to my eye — I’m a journalist after all. I raise my iPhone higher above my camera, finger on Snapchat’s trigger — I’m a millennial after all.
The Fiat rolls up — I don’t have time to breathe — a man dressed in white steps out. He’s taller than I expect. I see his skull cap. He turns slightly. My heart explodes. It’s really him! It’s the pope!
The humble Fiat pulls away and Pope Francis greets those around him. Then he turns around and looks at us and the crowd is deafening.
My camera shutter is firing off a million times, I’m Snapchatting this whole thing, my heart is still exploding and I forget to breathe. He turns towards the church, walking up the steps into the Cathedral Basilica to celebrate Mass with the men and women religious of Philadelphia. And suddenly, he’s gone. The Holy Doors are closed, and then I remember to breathe. My chest feels tight and my eyes feel dry. Did I even blink? He was so close to me, I could have (badly) thrown a football to him.
I turn to those around me, “Wasn’t that amazing? Did you see his smile? He waved at us! He looked at us!”
When I heard “He looked at us!” I had just scrolled to a picture where Pope Francis seems to be looking directly at me. His eyes are dead into the center of my camera. They pierce the lens and, still leaning against the bench, they pierced my heart. He saw me. I’m sure he was looking at the hundreds around me, also in a chaos, but that photo captured a silent gaze of love.
When I finally sit down
Mass starts, and it’s the Gospel. I realize I’m not actually attending this Mass, just listening, and also remember that I can’t feel my legs. I tap my knees, still pushed against the bench, good, they’re still there. I need to sit down, but the crowds aren’t moving. They’re expecting him to exit the church the same way he came in, but I doubt that and wade through people to find a place to sit.
All the benches are taken, but there are several shady trees, and the grass looks soft. I find a big tree with a small older lady sits beneath it, reading a book. She looks friendly, and with a deep sigh of relief, plant myself under the green canopy. She looks over at me and smiles. “You were up at the front, weren’t you?” she asks.
I simply nod and show her the photo of the Argentine pontiff looking at me.
Her eyes and smile are as big as mine. “He’s looking at you! He’s making eye contact with you. That’s such an intensely personal experience, and so special,” she explains, reaching over and squeezing my shoulder. “You should feel very special.”
Before I can do anything, my eyes well up and tears start to fall. Seeing this, she lovingly pats my hands in a motherly way. They’re joyful tears, tears of thanksgiving.
When I look ahead, I also look back
I attended World Youth Day in Madrid, but never got to see the pope up close like in Philadelphia. As I prepare my heart and soul to once again encounter the Universal Catholic Church, just as I did in Philadelphia at the World Meeting of Families, I am setting no expectation. I ask for your prayers, and will bring you with me on this pilgrim journey with the pope.
Now with just days before I see the Holy Father again in Krakow, I think back to my time under that tree with my friend in Philadelphia. Dozens of families finally make their way to the park, setting up picnics around our tree.
To my right, a father rolls a small orange ball to his young child. The little boy can’t seem to pick up the rubber ball and seems content with just pushing it. His dad takes his hand, placing it under the ball and lifts it so it will drop. His little face lights up when he sees the ball fall and bounce on the grass. The ball keeps rolling, and he chases after it.
Under the shade of a towering leafy tree, I can feel my legs again. My new friend leans back over: “Peace be with you.”
James Ramos is a storyteller and designer with the Texas Catholic Herald in Houston. Follow his #Krakow16 journey on Twitter, Instagram, and his blog. He’s also great at high fives, loves group selfies and is terrible at #PokemonGo.
*Note: This post was originally published on July 31, 2012.
One of the most spiritually touching moments I had in my life was last year during my work for the national committee of World Youth Day Madrid. I had the opportunity to visit Loyola, the town where today’s saint (St. Ignatious of Loyola) is from.
Why was this trip spiritually touching? Not just because of the company – I went with two Canadian volunteers and an American priest – but also because of what you feel once you set foot on that land. You feel like there is a straight line between heaven and earth. You feel touched by a peace that is difficult to find in other places.
We departed from Madrid on a sweltering summer afternoon and drove to the Basque country, specifically to Azpeitia wich is the name for Loyola in Euskara the basque language. When we arrived I felt immediately touched by a peace that is difficult to describe. As time passed that peace helped me open my heart and let God get in.
The next morning, I found myself going up the stairs to the famous Conversion Chapel. I couldn’t imagine how special that moment could be. Ignatius’ conversion is a unique episode. During the battle of Pamplona he was hit in the leg with a canon ball. After the leg healed he thought his leg didn’t look good and decided to undergo corrective surgery. That recovery was longer than the first one. During this process of recovery, he asked for chivalric romances (stories of knights) to read but there were no such books in the house, only a copy of The Life of Christ and some biographies of saints. He decided to read these because he thought it would help him to conquer the ladies of the court. Instead, Ignatius realized how empty he was, and how his bohemian life didn’t bring him peace. In that same room where he had his conversion, I could feel how special and how big was the work God started there.
In that Conversion Chapel God planted the seeds of the Society of Jesus which played a major role in the Christianization of the American continent. That reminded me how sometimes God chooses a not-so-perfect seed to make good things come from it.
On that green land lost between mountains of the north of Spain, Ignatius , a son of Loyola, started a beautiful work of God. His conversion led to the conversion of a large part of the world. After that day in the chapel the sense that God uses not the perfect, but the ones he knows can do the work, accompanies me.
As Ignatius discovered God in his life in that room, I discovered where the message of St. Ignatius of Loyola fit on my life. On this 31st of July when the church celebrates his feast I say, St Ignatius, pray for us.
On September 27, 2014, as early as 7:00am, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from over 80 countries made their way to Madrid’s Parque de Valdebebas for the Beatification of Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, the first successor of the founder of Opus Dei, St. Josemaria Escriva.
Our group of 50 Canadians travelled by Metro to the site. At each stop we were accompanied by other passengers clearly heading to the Beatification as well. Dressed in Sundays’ best, carrying folding chairs and proudly baring their flags of origin, we could tell they were going where we were going. The obviousness caused an excited stir of conversations and selfies throughout the train. Anyone who was not attending the Beatification approached the train with caution, as if they were witnessing a giant flash mob. The atmosphere on the train was a jubilant one.
The stop for Valdebebas was decorated with posters of Alvaro del Portillo with arrows directing people to the bus line-up. The event was equipped with 1,600 busses transporting people from various locations to the beatification site. From end to end, the 185,000 square meters of the park contained 80 confessionals, 13 chapels, 26 screens, a massive altar, 300 concelebrants for the Mass, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and 3,500 volunteers running the ‘show’. The altar had a backdrop of Our Lady of Almudena with handwritten script, “Regnare Christum Volumus” (We want Christ to reign).
From 8:00 am onward people made their way to their sections which ranged from A to I. While patiently waiting for the ceremony to begin, mood setting music played over the speakers while we Canadians watched, astounded by the regalia suited to the people from their respective countries. From colourful African dresses and head pieces to intricate Korean Hanboks, this was the realizing factor that the whole world had really come to celebrate a Saint.
Under sunny skies, contrary to the forecast of showers, the Beatification began with some words from Pope Francis read by the Vicar General of Opus Dei, Fr. Fernando Ocariz. In the Holy Father’s letter he outlined del Portillo’s life, with a special dissection of his famous aspiration, “Thank you, forgive me, help me more”. Without failing to mention his works during his travels to several different countries, Pope Francis also captured the spirit of Opus Dei, that simplicity and ordinary life are a sure path to holiness. (The Pope’s letter can be found at www.alvarodelportillo.org)
After the solemn Beatification, the screens revealed a larger than life image of the new Blessed, which displayed one his finest qualities, a serene gaze. Shortly after this, Jose Ignacio, the young boy who had received a favour which lead to del Portillo’s Beatification, presented the new Blessed’s relic to the altar. Uproarious applause ensued and the choir began a regal rendition of ‘Christus Vincit’. The massive crowd joined in singing with a joyful pride.
During the Mass, the most impressive moment was the seemingly endless procession of priests that administered Holy Communion. Young men holding yellow and white umbrellas accompanied each of the 1,200 priests. Communion was timed perfectly with the singing of ‘Nearer, my God, to thee’. When all the Hosts were consumed, with the accompaniment of the orchestra, the park resonated an aura of prayer and thanksgiving.
At the end of the Mass, the Prelate of Opus Dei, Bishop Javier Echevarria, shared his gratitude to God, the Church, Pope Francis, Pope Emeritus Benedict the XVI, Cardinal Amato and to all who made the event possible. He proclaimed Alvaro del Portillo’s example, that it should remind us of the universal call to holiness. He also asked that we pray especially for fellow Christians who suffer persecution and are martyred in different parts of the world. When the ceremony concluded, and the pilgrims started back for Madrid, the thousands of volunteers remained to clean up the park so that it would be spotless for the following day’s Thanksgiving Mass.
On the Monday following the Thanksgiving mass, many of the Faithful travelled to Rome to pray in front of Blessed Alvaro del Portillo’s remains, which was transferred from the crypt of the Prelatic Church of Our Lady of Peace, to the Basilica of St. Eugenio.
While moving around Madrid and Rome it was surreal to see so many familiar faces in a foreign land, the affair resembled a giant family reunion. Historical sites that pertained to Blessed Alvaro’s life in both Madrid and Rome were decorated with large posters that would explain his significance to each building.
In Rome, during the Wednesday Papal audience, amidst the thousands of Faithful, you would have never known that the majority of the crowd had just come from Madrid. That is, until Pope Francis made a special mention of Opus Dei and Bishop Javier Echevarria, which caused the crowd to cheer with enthusiasm.
Another memorable event that cannot go unmentioned was the Benediction on Thursday evening for the transfer of Blessed Alvaro del Portillo from St. Eugenio back to Our Lady of Peace. St. Eugenio was exceedingly crowded, so much so that the concept of personal space was non-existent. However, during the Benediction, when the Blessed Sacrament was exposed, the crowd managed to find a way to kneel, albeit in awkward or uncomfortable positons. This was a beautiful illustration that in the midst of all the hype over the new Blessed, the glory remained to God as a reminder that He marks the Saint, not men.
Alvaro del Portillo’s obedience to Our Lord’s will paved the way for so many to draw nearer to Christ both while he was alive and even after his death. Today all the favours of his intercession are pouring in, including the favour that was granted on the day of his Beatification.
During the Mass on the 27th of September, the Polish representative reading an intention included a special intention she read out in Spanish for a boy name ‘Lorenzo’. The story goes that Lorenzo’s family came to Madrid to attend the Beatification. At some point 18-month old ‘Lorenzo’ had fallen into the hotel’s pool and was found by an ex-fire fighter who was able to stabilize him until reaching the hospital. In the end, the favour was granted thanks to Blessed Alvaro’s intercession and the prayers of the thousands of pilgrims at Valdebebas. ‘Lorenzo’ was spotted later in the week running around Rome in full health.
If you’ve heard of del Portillo before or are only getting to know him now, I would recommend reading “Saxum: The Life of Alvaro del Portillo” from the synopsis you’ll find that, “the book is a fact-filled biography set against the background of historic events like the Spanish Civil War and Vatican Council II. It depicts a person of powerful integrity and conviction who set aside a promising engineering career to follow the vision embodied in Opus Dei. Don Alvaro emerges in these pages as a tower of strength, reliability, and good humor in the face of a host of threats and challenges that might well have defeated a lesser man.”
If there is one thing to take away from this experience it is that the Beatification of Alvaro del Portillo is a vibrant example of what marvels Our Lord can work in our lives if we simply abandon ourselves to Him.
Written by Trisha Villarante, guest blogger.
This week, for the little corner of the church, Opus Dei, all roads lead to Madrid!
With the Beatification of Bishop Alvaro Del Portillo, the first successor of St. Josemaria, happening in Spain, there is an estimated 100,000 people (according to the Catholic News Agency) coming to witness this momentous and God-glorifying moment.
Every step of the way the members of the Work (Opus Dei) are giving thanks and collecting intentions.
A good friend of mine, Coeli Anne Bugash, mentioned the trip to a friend of hers and offered to bring along her rosary and any intentions she might have. The following day she received a beautiful tin box full of rosaries and slips of intentions to pack in her suitcase.
Across Canada, there are over 400 people heading to Madrid this week. Some have left early to tour Spain before the blessed occasion and for many of these pilgrims, Rome is the next destination. There they will be attending the thanksgiving mass and the Papal audience on Wednesday morning.
At this moment, my group and I are on route to Madrid. However, we have encountered a minor set-back. After a delayed flight, 3 re-bookings and seperate hotels in London, we are all anxiously waiting for the next flight to Madrid. While laying low, we have discovered that there are others stranded around the world, so together we are praying the new prayer card to Don Alvaro that was sent to us in our Beatification packages in solidarity.
We’ve been through a lot today, but spirits are high and regardless of what has happened so far we still feel as though we are floating in the prayers of people from all over the world.
MADRID, WE’RE ON OUR WAY! #Alvaro14
Written by Trisha Villarante, guest blogger.
With the pope’s one major summer trip over and done with, attention can now return to what we could call “housekeeping” matters: appointing new bishops to dioceses that have been awaiting appointments, and filling up the papal agenda for this fall.
This week Pope Francis named the new Archbishop of Madrid, Spain. Cardinal Antonio Rouco Varela turned 75 in 2011. During World Youth Day Madrid 2011 Cardinal Rouco Varela delivered his resignation letter directly to Pope Benedict XVI. The appointment of a successor, like many others, was delayed.
After much speculation by Vatican watchers, the cardinal’s sucessor was finally made public: Archbishop Carlos Osoro Sierra, currently leading the Archdiocese of Valencia, will move to Spain’s capital. That left an opening in Valencia, a vibrant, seaside diocese brimming with vocations. In an unexpected move, the pope moved Cardinal Antonio Cañizarez Llovera from the head of the Congregation for Divine Worship to his home diocese of Valencia.
Cañizarez Llovera’s time in the Roman Curia was undoubtedly coming to an end – he was one of the few curial officials who had not been permanently confirmed in his job by Pope Francis. However, forgetting that this pope has no qualms about breaking unwritten “rules”, most believed Cañizarez Llovera would be named to Madrid.
Quashing any notion that the appointment was some sort of punishment or humiliation, the cardinal told Vatican Insider, a vatican news web site run by the Italian paper La Stampa, “It was my wish. I said to Francis: I want to have the odor of sheep. I asked to go back to a diocese, to whichever diocese he wanted to send me.” The cardinal comes from Utiel, a town in the autonomous region of Valencia and sees the appointment as a welcome homecoming.
On the North American side there is one major appointment expected soon: the replacement for Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, 77.
The cardinal submitted his resignation in 2012 when he turned 75. This year when he revealed that he was once again dealing with cancer, the Vatican informed that a replacement would be surfaced quickly for Chicago.
Cardinal George was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2006 and suffered a relapse in 2012. Earlier this year he revealed the cancer was once again showing signs of activity and he would under go a more aggressive round of chemotherapy. This week the archdiocese announced the cardinal had cancelled a scheduled trip to Rome in October in order to undergo treatment as part of a clinical trial run by the University of Chicago.
God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth”: that is, of Christ Jesus. Christ must be proclaimed to all nations and individuals, so that this revelation may reach to the ends of the earth:
God graciously arranged that the things he had once revealed for the salvation of all peoples should remain in their entirety, throughout the ages, and be transmitted to all generations.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, page 29.
Photo credit: CNS
The popemobile carrying Pope Benedict XVI makes its way through a throng of young people as the pope arrives to celebrate the World Youth Day closing Mass at Cuatro Vientos airfield in Madrid, Spain.
A year ago Madrid was getting ready to receive the pope. The youth of the world arrived in Madrid to celebrate the faith. But one year after, were there fruits?
I first thought about this when Salt and Light prepared the anniversary of WYD 2002. As a staff member for the Madrilenian WYD I asked myself what fruits the did event give the Church? Keeping in mind is too early to see the real fruits, and knowing WYD is a work of God is so big, we may never be able to measure the real effects it had.
To realize what the results are we need to look at what is the purpose of WYD and the goal is nothing less than show that the church is alive and the model of life offered by the church is in fact something more relevant than ever. Looking at WYD Madrid we realize despite of all of the difficulties many people went through during that week, all participants will say was the experience of a lifetime.
My work at WYD brought me to Salt and Light and from my point of view that is one of the fruits together with many others. In Madrid my job was taking care of the content of the official Portuguese web site. It was an amazing experience to share the stories of hundreds of young people around the world making sacrifices to be there, to celebrate their faith together with other people, to have the Holy Father Benedict XVI there thanking them for choosing the way of Christ.
But the experience that really showed me what the Catholic faith is about was my work with the Portuguese Conference of Bishops. My function was to organize a general meeting for all Portuguese pilgrims. After five months of work on August 18, 8.000 young boys and girls celebrated Christ in their lives, jumping singing and waving flags.
Why that event was so important for me? My past is connected with youth ministry I arrived in Madrid with nothing less than 14 years of experience as a youth minister. In Madrid I was seeing all my work coming to maybe to its most visible fruition. As a youth minister my concern was always try to get young people walking close to God and to not be afraid of showing what they really believe. That moment in the Madrid Arena was living proof of it.
So looking at all of this WYD Madrid has already given fruits for both those who went and met God in their lives, and also those who followed the event from afar and were captivated by these young Catholics standing firm in their faith
Tonight on Perspectives: The Weekly Edition, Pedro reviews the big moments of 2011. Who better to talk to than three of Salt + Light’s producers who have been there covering those events. Kris Dmytrenko, Alicia Ambrosio and Cheridan Eygelaar give Pedro their perspective about the key moments for the Church in 2011.
Were you in Madrid this summer for World Youth Day? Were you, like so many others, in the middle of an immense sea of people unable to get the view you wanted? WYD Madrid just uploaded this video to their still-active YouTube page, a one hour look back at whole week of WYD. Titled “Cronica de una semana inolvidable” or “timeline of an unforgettable week”, the video includes footage from TeleMadrid and 13TV, the official broadcasters of World Youth Day Madrid. If you understand Spanish you’ll enjoy the excerpts from Pope Benedict XVI’s homilies.